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Football, Johan Cruyff said, is a game you play with your brain. Michel Bruyninckx takes that claim more seriously than most. Terms like pedagogy, didactical principles, cognitive readiness and differential learning trip off the Belgian coach's tongue as easily as catenaccio as he explains his "brain centred learning" approach to training young players. "When you make use of difficult words people feel resentment," said the Standard Liège academy director, who is arguably the first football coach to develop a training method specifically to target improvement in the brain's performance. "But when you see the training you can see it works."
Bruyninckx is talking in his office in the €18 million state-of-the-art Academie Robert Louis-Dreyfus, which is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe. Located in the Saint-Jean forest just up the road from the club's Stade de Sclessin, the academy has a futuristic feel, particularly when set aganst the fading industry of Liège. It is an appropriate setting for a coach who is as comfortable talking about neuroscience as he is about football tactics.
The idea behind his approach is simple -- to make players think as quickly with their brains as they kick the ball with their feet. "We need to develop an engram -- a neurological track -- in the brain," said Bruyninckx, who aims for his players to be in a state of "conscious" learning at all times when they are training and playing. It is about creating new connections in the brain's circuitry and hard wiring them in. Key to this is the part played by myelin, an insulating material that forms a layer -- the myelin sheath -- usually around only the axon of a neuron and which gets thicker when the nerve is repeatedly stimulated. "What do good athletes do when they train? They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire. That's what makes them different from the rest of us," George Bartzokis, a professor of neurology at UCLA, told Daniel Coyle of the New York Times in 2007.
The attraction of developing more intelligent players would seem obvious for any self-respecting football coach, but the high drop-out rate -- "In England we've judged players by the time they are 17 or 18," said the Southampton scout David Webb -- suggests the world of youth development in Britain could do with a little more blue sky thinking. And why are they being rejected at such an early age when the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25?
But it's not just the high wastage rate. In the 2008-09 season 57 percent of players at Premier League academies were born between September and December, while 14 percent had their birthday between May and August. That suggests that the more physically mature children in any given school year are being selected by clubs, which in turn means an English Lionel Messi (born June) or Andrès Iniesta (born May) is unlikely to be turning up any time soon. "We always thought that sporting activities were mechanical activities, but we know that there are interventions from the brain," said Bruyninckx, warming to his theme. "Think of what Real Madrid experienced during el Clásico when they were beaten 5-0 by Barcelona last season. This requires high concentration and creativeness, which is only possible if you bring the brain into a conscious process of performing. A new way of training -- actually synaptogenesis -- creating new brain connections."
Bruyninckx is not the only coach advocating more intelligent and innovative approaches to training. "I think that coaches either forget, or don't even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport," said the Uefa-A licence coach Kevin McGreskin. "We've got to develop the players' brains as well as their bodies but it's much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player's physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes."
The worry for McGreskin, who delivers workshops to professional clubs, is that for too long England has been coaching players in "pretty much the same way, but expecting the end product to be different and thinking somehow talent will magically appear."
The drills Bruyninckx uses -- "in five years I don't think I've used the same drills three times" -- start off simply but grow in complexity to foster concentration and touch. This idea of "overload" ensures that the players are more actively involved during an exercise even when they are not on the ball. The pre-eminence of the team over the individual is key for Bruyninckx -- "we have to do it together" is one of his mantras -- and as he shows a video of players performing various training routines he jokes that what they are is doing is football's equivalent of social media networking.
"Football is an angular game and needs training of perception -- both peripheral sight and split vision," said Bruyninckx. "Straight, vertical playing increases the danger of losing the ball. If a team continuously plays the balls at angles at a very high speed it will be quite impossible to recover the ball. The team rhythm will be so high that your opponent will never get into the match."
The idea of overload is as key for McGreskin as it is for Bruyninckx. While the Belgian might get his players to speak in four different languages when they are doing strength and conditioning work, the Scot has devised one exercise in which players have to throw a tennis ball and call out colours while they are passing a football in sequence. "We are not providing kids with the challenges that they need to meet the demands of the modern game," said McGreskin, who has recently started a project working with the Partick Thistle first team. "Overload exercises help the player speed up the feet and the thought process."
McGreskin argues the decision making of too many players is not quick enough, a weakness that is caused by their inability to scan the pitch when they are without the ball. It is a view supported by research carried out by Professor Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. Using Sky Sports' PlayerCam function, Jordet examined 55 Premier League midfielders' head movements and found that the more these players scanned their surroundings, the statistically more successful they were with their passes. "The visually most active third of the players completed almost twice as many forward passes as the least active players," said Jordet.
McGreskin added, "Don't forget almost 98 percent of the game is played off the ball. Even in a basic passing drill I force the players to work on perception, scanning skills, technique, adjustability, concentration, attention focus and attention bandwidth. It's quite amazing the effect it can have on players."
Bruyninckx is the first to admit that he is a bit of an outsider -- "when Darwin was talking about evolution people thought he was crazy" -- but this summer the Belgian got a foot firmly inside the football establishment's door when he was appointed head of Standard's youth academy. His growing reputation has led to a couple of meetings with Real Madrid, including one with José Mourinho, an interesting development given the way the Madrid club have lagged behind Barça in the development of young players. "Mourinho immediately understood what I'm trying to do and he asked a lot of intelligent questions," said Bruyninckx. "He also noticed that the organisation of the drills requires a greater team involvement, more concentration, attention, a continuous inciting of perception and that intelligent playing could grow a lot. I was most of all surprised by the fact he could instantly see how several technical details would be in favour of his players and the straight coupling of the contents of several drills to his players' individual characteristics was striking. He was not talking about a general programme but processed directly the new insights to his daily training and coaching. He cares a lot about his players."